We're trying to keep everyone safe, says Sheffield Hallam University vice-chancellor Prof Sir Chris Husbands
Sheffield is made by many things: its fabulous diversity, its manufacturing heritage, its green spaces.
It is also made by its universities: two very strong universities who are at the very centre of the city’s innovation, research, development – and its economy.
In any other year, the end of September would see the city centre bursting with the energy and enthusiasm of new and returning students.
But obviously the circumstances this year are quite different. Covid is making sure of that.
We have spent months preparing for the new academic year – making our campus as safe as possible for staff and students to return.
That means one-way systems, hand sanitisers, masks on campus, smaller classes and a much greater use of technology to extend our online learning provision.
Covid is making life tough for everyone: young and old, rich and poor. But I have a particular sympathy for the young. You only get one childhood and one youth.
Those of us who are getting older realise that with sadness – if only we could be young again!
But it is a particular cruelty of Covid that it is taking away so many of the things which make up being young – being a bit carefree, enjoying the company of friends, exploring, trying things out. This virus is unfair on everyone. It’s really unfair on the young.
For our students – most of them at the start of their adult lives – the virus is taking away something very precious which they won’t, ever, get back.
So at Sheffield Hallam we have done all we can to balance our responsibilities to our students, to our staff and to our community. What does that mean in practice?
Last week, the Prime Minister reiterated that education establishments should remain open and face-to-face teaching should go ahead.
Our extensive preparations have made this possible and some face-to-face teaching has got under way this week.
If we need to, we will be able to pivot to online provision, but we want our students to be able to learn face to face. It’s a vitally important part of the learning experience.
This also means we have put in place safety and protection measures to help to protect students and staff on campus. The look and feel of our campus has been transformed.
Communicating with students about the ways they will learn is part of our planning with new and returning students, but we are also stressing the importance of staying safe and being considerate members of the local community.
We have been clear with our students that we want them to enjoy their university experience even in these very different circumstances but that we expect them to do so responsibly and considerately.
It is everyone’s responsibility to help stop the spread of the virus, and despite it not being much fun at times, we need our students to abide by the government rules.
We expect that the overwhelming majority of students will follow the rules and take their safety seriously, as well as that of our wider community.
In cases where that does not happen, we will want to remind students of their responsibilities and we won’t rule out taking firm action against any students who fail to act in accordance with the law on social gatherings.
We know the measures we have put in place cannot completely eradicate all risks, so we are also working to ensure students understand how and where to get tested if they have symptoms, and preparing robust processes to track and trace contacts on our campuses and in halls of residence.
And we are working closely with partner organisations across Sheffield to review our approach and introduce any further necessary measures to help stop the spread of Covid.It’s not the start of the new academic year that I wanted or the start to university life that many students expected.
I want everyone to be safe, but – that worry I have about the way Covid is stealing childhood and youth – I want us all to do everything we can to offer a fulfilling, enriching experience to our young people.
They, after all, will be the NHS staff, teachers, engineers, designers, makers on which we will depend. They are the future of the city, the region and the country.
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